An ongoing conflict that remains popular within the modern music industry is one between the signed artist and the controlling label that wishes to stifle these entertainers’s creative impulses at every turn, instead forcing them to pursue the most commercially viable avenues of musicianship possible. It’s an attractive narrative because there’s a strong amount of truth to it: Prince famously called himself a “slave” as a result of his legal battle against Warner Bros. to have full control to his music, and use of the internet in the past few years to platform emerging talent has pushed ethical arguments about signing to a label to their practical breaking point. So there’s something of a pleasure to be had with the general harmony presented between employee and employer in Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, where jazz legends like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter reflect on the creative freedom they were granted by being signed to the vanguard label in the early 1950s.
Unfortunately, director Sophie Huber is also generally adverse to questioning the ethical practices at Blue Note (there’s an all too brief mention reflecting on the once-common practice of racist executives taking advantage of disenfranchised black youths’ talents, only for that thread to be dropped) and instead relies on the label’s iconic discography as irrefutable evidence of its greatness — which in and of itself does offer substantial support for that case, but also still feels like a missed opportunity to try and dig deeper into the behind-the-scenes mechanics of what has allowed Blue Note to continue operating for nearly eight decades. It’s regrettable, too, that there’s hardly any mention of Blue Notes’ releases post-1960 (Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor are completely omitted from this documentary, which probably has a lot to do with the interviewed parties’ views on free-jazz), which feels like missing the forest for the trees in terms of presenting an accurately consistent history, especially considering the film’s emphasis on current signees over these noted greats. Don Was, the current President of Blue Note Records, puts it accurately at one point by mentioning that the label makes half of its revenue from reissues and half from modern releases: so emphasis is placed on what gets the most capital, which feels like a slap in the face to a legacy built on valuing artistic integrity over financial gain.
Published as part of June 2019’s Before We Vanish.